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Once upon a time, and not so long ago, Jay McInerney was a relative innocent when it came to wine, an enthusiastic amateur willing to see if there was a silver lining in pretty much any bottle by drinking it. Sometimes he would turn up gold in unexpected places, and readers of his wine columns, first in House & Garden and then in The Wall Street Journal, cashed in. The Juice, his third collection of wine writings, has a few surprises, too — the Te Mura Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc for one, "farmer fizz" for another — but chances are better he is tipping Latour or Angelo Gaja or a single-vineyard, vintage champagne into the glass. No surprises there.
Earlier on as well, there was a pleasing inclusiveness. Maybe because it felt like if McInerney could find his way through the minefield of wine without losing a foot, so could you. Maybe because of the impression that he was happy — though some of the mornings-after must have been trying — and happy to share the good fortune of these assignments. Plus, he was and is an artful storyteller: while they may have be word-pinched squibs, the pieces surged with incident, landscape, sensuousness, and a winning humor.
The Juice has plenty going for it, including that storytelling. McInerney still has a sui generis touch when it comes to describing wines: a Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like "just about everything you might find on Carmen Miranda's hat," or the barnyard funk of a rustic Cornas, or an Australian bruiser that serves as "the vinous equivalent of a 1966 Pontiac GTO." He works hard to understand the mysteries of terroir, and he puts the thumbscrews to biodynamic farming, hoping it will reveal the witch in its craft (biodynamics ain't spilling those beans). He steers readers toward the wonders of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah blends, which "like crows and owls, are rarely seen together." And you have to love the story of McInerney sitting in the legendary hangout Elaine's with his glass of Pinot Grigio, while the next table over Norman Mailer and Gay Talese are pounding highballs.
Much of The Juice, however, moves in exclusive circles, where the reader is allowed to look but not to touch. The privilege of fame and wine-scribe access finds him tucking into big-name wines or names so rare they've never crossed your radar: "His whites trade for prices that induce vertigo," "Domaine de la Romanée-Conti makes a few barrels of Montrachet every year, but unless you own a private jet, you probably shouldn't worry about it" — that sort of thing, and damn the Whitmanesque inclusiveness. A little of this goes a long way; stick it in the reader's face once too often, and it is easier to feel more resentful than wowed.
Okay, who wouldn't drink the best when it is offered, and bully for McInerney. Who wouldn't be dazzled? But if he thinks we are dazzled by his rubbing shoulders with the "alpha males" who have so stunned the wine market by what they are willing to spend that they have made the top end their exclusive domain — dazzled as McInerney has been, to the point of moonstricken — he should think again. The bloat of their indulgence, even as parody, which this isn't, is repugnant. One dreadful windbag, leaking testosterone, passes judgment on a forty-four-year-old magnum of Salon Champagne: "Tight as a fourteen-year-old virgin." You want to ask him, "Been there, have you? Done that?"
Down, boy. Don't let them spoil the fun. Ignore the competitive oenophiliacs and focus on the worthy personalities: the winemakers, the cellar keepers, the buyers, the sommeliers, the grape nuts in general. There are handfuls of dapper, vest- pocket profiles of these folks, just as there are irresistible pairings, like Viognier and Thai food (which is a definite improvement on the author's youthful penchant for Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Thai stick). Argue with McInerney over the quirks of receptivity and the subjectivity of experience. Weigh him in the balance, and then give the man a glass.
Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewer: Peter Lewis
Heraclitus tells us you can never step into the same river twice, “for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” And likewise, it seems to me, you can never really drink the same wine twice. The appreciation of wine, for all that we might try to quantify it, is in the end a subjective experience. More than a poem or a painting or a concerto, which is problematic enough for the aesthetician, the 1982 La Mission, say, or the 1999 Beaucastel is a moving target. Good wine continues to grow and develop in the glass and in the bottle, to change from one day to the next in response to baro- metric pressures and other variables; moreover, any given wine— from the same maker, the same vintage, even the same barrel—is subject to our own quirks of receptivity, to the place and the com- pany in which we drink it, to the knowledge we bring with us, and to the food with which we pair it. Even so, in order to develop our appreciation, we agree to a fictional objectivity and attempt to iso- late wine from these contextual variables, to treat each and every glass in front of us as if it contained a stable and quantifiable sub- stance. We Americans are often scolded for adhering to this view, and one critic in particular has been accused of reducing wine’s infinite variety and complexity to a vulgar game of numbers. On the other hand, the felon in question, Robert Parker, has helped to democratize and demystify something that until very recently was stuffy, arcane, and elitist. His core belief—that wine can be evaluated and graded like any other consumer product—was hugely liberating for those of us on both sides of the Atlantic who wanted to penetrate the mysteries of the great French growths. And it took this middle-class lawyer, who’d grown up drinking soft drinks with meals, to begin to clear away the musty, upper-class stench of oenophilia.
I’ve learned quite a bit in the last fifteen years, and my tastes have shifted accordingly (if sometimes mystifyingly). Burgundy has become something of an obsession, and there are more than a few essays—an entire section, actually—devoted to the fickle, intermittently exhilarating, and heartbreaking wines of that region. But I still love Bordeaux, not only the famous wines, but also the Crus Bourgeois from relatively obscure corners like Fronsac and Lalande-de-Pomerol, which represent tremendous value in the face of the madly escalating prices of the classed growths from the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Just when I think my interest in California is flagging, I taste a new wine like Steve Matthiasson’s white blend or an old one like Araujo’s 1995 Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and get excited all over again. Italy now accounts for about a third of American wine imports and for me remains a continuing source of wonder and pleasure. Spain might well be the new Italy, a country with a long history of wine making that’s finally waking up to its potential. Something similar is happening in South Africa, which has a wine-making tradition extending back to the seventeenth century. Some of the wines I write about here are costly and hard to find, but I believe it’s one of the wine writer’s duties, however arduous it might sound, to bring back news of the best and the rarest, just as it’s the travel writer’s duty to explore exotic and remote destina- tions. Most readers of automotive magazines won’t ever drive a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, and most wine drinkers will never hold a glass of Château Latour, but as an avid reader of Car and Driver I’d hate to see it limit its coverage to sensible, affordable rides. No, I want a knowledgeable, badass driver to tell me what it’s like to power the new Gallardo Superleggera through the Alps. So, yes, there’s some wine porn here. That said, some of the most surpris- ing and exciting moments involve obscure and undervalued wines like the 2007 Movia Pinot Grigio from Slovenia or overachievers like the 2007 Château Jean Faux Bordeaux, which at $25 retail is $1,200 cheaper than the 2010 Latour.
Much as I have ostensibly learned since I started writing about wine, and as lucky as I have been to have tasted some of the renowned vintages, I’m not sure that I’ve ever enjoyed a bot- tle of wine more than I did that Mateus rosé back in the Berk- shires in 1972. I’d lately acquired my driver’s license and was in the company of my first love, with the night and the entire sum- mer stretched out ahead of me like a river full of fat, silvery, pink- fleshed rainbow trout. The wine tasted like summer, and it was about to become the taste of my first real kiss.
Acid Trips: Some Whites and Pinks to Start
White Wine on the Rocks: Chablis Cold Heaven, Hot Mama Oh No! Not Pinot Grigio!
Pop Pop, Fizz Fizz German Made Simple Finally Fashionable: Rosé from Provence to Long Island Lean and Fleshy: The Paradox of Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay Rosé Champagne: Not Just for Stage Door Johnnies A Debilitating Pleasure: Tavel
The Founding Wine Geek Writer, Importer, Gentleman Spy The Salesman with the Golden Palate The Retro Dudes of Napa The Rock Stars of Pinot Noir My Kind of Cellar: Ted Conklin and the American Hotel A Tuscan in the House: Julian Niccolini and the Four Seasons Not Just Mario’s Partner: Joe “Vino” Bastianich Breaks Out The Wild Wizard of the Loire Is Biodynamics a Hoax?
The Modigliani of Healdsburg The Odd Couple Mondavi on Mondavi
The Red and the Black
Does Bordeaux Still Matter?
The Exquisite Sisters of Margaux Big Aussie Monsters Is Cornas Finally Having Its Moment?
Barbera: Piedmont’s Everyday Red Reasons to Be Cheerful: Barolo and Barbaresco Blood, Sweat, and Leaps of Faith The Woman with All the Toys The Whole Spice Rack: Old- School Rioja Zowie!
Heartbreak Hill or, The Golden Slope
Becky Wasserman: The American Godmother of Burgundy A Grace Kelly of a Wine: Puligny- Montrachet Secrets of Meursault Jacques’s Domaine Starchild and the Marquis: Earthiness Meets Refinement in Volnay Off the Main Drag: Savigny- lès- Beaune Peasants and Plutocrats: La Paulée de New York
Off the Beaten Path
Way Down South: The Great Whites, and Reds, of Hamilton Russell Blending Their Way to an Identity: Paso Robles Kiwi Reds from Craggy Range Spanish Olympian Location, Location, Location Swashbuckling Dandy: Talbott Better Late Than Never: Ridge Old World Head, New World Body: The Reds of Priorat
Over the Top
His Magnum Is Bigger Than Yours Aged Effervescence: 1996 Champagne A Towering Red: Château Latour What to Drink with Thirty- Seven Courses: El Bulli
Travels with Lora
Posted August 12, 2013